The majority of development in edtech is driven by the bureaucratic traditions of education more than the pedagogical ones.
If we object to the increasing standardization of education, how and where do we build sites of resistance? What strategies can we employ to guard ourselves and our students? What systems of privilege must we first dismantle?
“Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention,
through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human
beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”
~ Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
What is Pedagogy?
Pedagogy is praxis, insistently perched at the intersection between
the philosophy and the practice of teaching.
What is Critical Pedagogy?
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire argues against the
banking model, in which education “becomes an act of depositing,
in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the
In place of the banking model, Freire advocates for “problem-
posing education,” in which a classroom or learning
environment becomes a space for asking questions — a space
of cognition not information.
“As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is
deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one
another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.”
~ bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress
My work has wondered at whether and how Critical Pedagogy
translates into digital space. Can the necessary reﬂective dialogue
ﬂourish within Web-based tools, social media platforms, or learning
management systems? What is digital agency? How can we build
platforms that support learning across age, race, gender, culture,
ability, geography? What are the speciﬁc affordances and
limitations of technology toward these ends?
What is Critical Digital Pedagogy?
The wondering at these questions is not particularly new. John and
Evelyn Dewey write in Schools of To-Morrow, “Unless the mass of
workers are to be blind cogs and pinions in the apparatus they
employ, they must have some understanding of the physical and
social facts behind and ahead of the material and appliances with
which they are dealing.”
In the forward to Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Richard
Shaull writes, “Our advanced technological society is rapidly making
objects of most of us and subtly programming us into conformity to
the logic of its system [...] The paradox is that the same technology
that does this to us also creates a new sensitivity to what is
The large-format blackboard was ﬁrst used in the U.S. in 1801. The
vacuum tube-based computer was introduced in 1946. In the 1960s,
Seymour Papert began teaching the Logo programming language to
children. The ﬁrst Learning Management System, PLATO (Program
Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations), was developed in 1960.
After the introduction of the Radio Lecture in the 1930s, Lloyd Allen
Cook warned, “This mechanizes education and leaves the local
teacher only the tasks of preparing for the broadcast and keeping
order in the classroom.”
Digital technologies have values coded into them in advance. Many
tools are good only insofar as they are used. Tools and platforms that
do dictate too strongly how we might use them, or ones that remove
our agency by covertly reducing us and our work to commodiﬁed
data, should be rooted out by a Critical Digital Pedagogy.
The Canvas CEO recently announced their “second growth
initiative focused on analytics, data science and artiﬁcial
intelligence. The code name for this initiative is DIG … We have
the most comprehensive database on the educational
experience in the globe. So given that information that we have,
no one else has those data assets at their ﬁngertips to be able to
develop those algorithms and predictive models.”
Does Canvas educate students about IP and data privacy before
collecting data? Can individual students opt out, no matter the
university policy? Is there a single button students can click to
remove all their data? If Canvas does monetize the data it has
collected, whether permission was given or not, will the owners of
that data be compensated?
These are the kinds of questions we need to be asking of all our
edtech tools, and students should be part of this conversation.
CRITICAL TOOL EVALUATION EXERCISE
1. What assumption does the tool make about its users? What kind of
relationships does it set up between teachers / students?
2. What assumptions does the tool make about learning and education?
Does the tool attempt to dictate how our learning and teaching happen?
How is this reﬂected in speciﬁc design and/or marketing choices?
3. What data must we provide to use the tool (login, e-mail, birthdate,
etc.)? What ﬂexibility do we have to be anonymous? Who owns the
data? Will others be able to use/copy/own our work there?
4. How accessible is the tool? For a blind student? For a hearing-impaired
student? For a student with a learning disability? For introverts? For
“The predation of the edtech industry only works if we don’t lift our
heads to see it, raise our hands to change it, stand in its way.”
~ Sean Michael Morris, “To Go Far Enough”
The Turnitin End-User Agreement is a blur of words and phrases
separated by commas, of which ‘royalty-free, perpetual, world-wide,
irrevocable’ are but a scary few. The rat-a-tat-tat of nouns, verbs,
and adjectives is so bewildering that almost anyone would blindly
click ‘agree’ just to avoid the deluge of legalese. But these words
are serious and their ramiﬁcations pedagogical.
Turnitin has a “non-
irrevocable license” to
1 billion student papers.
Turnitin was recently acquired for $1.75 billion. Of that, exactly $0
billion is going to the students who’ve fed the database for years.
Meanwhile, Turnitin makes deals with public educational institutions,
which help them collect more data, while Turnitin sells access to that
data back to those institutions.
“Many of our colleagues are entrenched in an agonistic stance
toward students in the aggregate: students are lazy, illiterate, anti-
intellectual cheaters who must prove their worth to the instructor.
Turnitin and its automated assessment of student writing is a tool for
~ Rebecca Moore Howard
This problem is not just about Turnitin. It’s about the relationships
public educational institutions enter into with technology companies.
We should be skeptical of those companies, especially the ones that
encourage us to be suspicious of our own students.
Remote proctoring tools can’t ensure that students will not cheat.
Turnitin won’t make students better writers. The LMS or VLE can’t
ensure that students will learn. All will, however, ensure that students
feel more thoroughly policed. All will ensure that students (and
teachers) are more compliant.
When our VLE or LMS reports how many minutes students have
spent accessing a course, what do we do with that information?
What will we do with the information when we also know the heart
rate of students as they’re accessing (or not accessing) a course?
The bureaucracies of schooling ﬂatten students, reducing them to
rows in a spreadsheet and their work to columns.
Photo by ﬂickr userVictoria Pickering
Why do we attempt so often to resolve this...
Photo by ﬂickr user Shelly
Grades are also a technology and a relatively recent invention. The
ﬁrst “ofﬁcial record” of a grading system was at Yale in 1785. The
A-F system appears to have emerged in 1898 (with the “E” not
disappearing until the 1930s) and the 100-point or percentage scale
became common in the early 1900s. Letter grades were not widely
used until the 1940s.
An “objective” system for grading was created for efﬁciency so that
systematized schooling could scale. And we’ve designed
technological tools in the 20th and 21st Centuries that have allowed
us to scale further. Toward standardization and away from
subjectivity, human relationships, and care.
The typical LMS or VLE is structured around the gradebook to the
extent that all interactions are ultimately mediated by that one tool,
even for the instructors who don’t use it.
I would argue that the majority of development in edtech is driven by
the bureaucratic traditions of education more than the pedagogical
ones. If John Dewey, Paulo Freire, or bell hooks made an LMS or
VLE, it would look nothing like what currently exists.
“Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine … if it is
of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice
to another, then I say, break the law.”
~ Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”
If we object to the increasing standardization of education, how
and where do we build sites of resistance? What strategies can we
employ to guard ourselves and our students? What systems of
privilege must we ﬁrst dismantle?
Some Data About Bias in Education:
• Black girls are twelve times more likely than
their white counterparts to be suspended.
• While Black children make up less than 20% of
preschoolers, they make up more than half of
• Teachers spend up to two thirds of their time
talking to male students; they also are more
likely to interrupt girls. When teachers ask
questions they direct their gaze towards boys
more often, especially when the questions are
open-ended (In STEM ﬁelds).
~ Soraya Chemaly, “All Teachers Should Be
Trained to Overcome Their Hidden Biases”
“We need to design our pedagogical approaches for the students
we have, not the students we wish we had. This requires
approaches that are responsive, inclusive, adaptive, challenging,
and compassionate. And it requires institutions ﬁnd more creative
ways to support teachers and prepare them for the work of
teaching. This is not a theoretical exercise — it is a practical one.”
~ Sara Goldrick-Rab and Jesse Stommel, “Teaching the
Students We Have Not the Students We Wish We Had”
“You cannot counter structural inequality with good will. You have to
~ Cathy N. Davidson
Photo by ﬂickr user Fio
A discussion of pedagogy needs to include a critical examination of
our technologies, what they afford, who they exclude, how they're
monetized, and what pedagogies they have already baked in. But it
requires we also begin with a consideration of what we value, the
kinds of relationships we want to develop with students, why we
gather together in places like universities, and how humans learn.
This means we can’t presume to know the reasons students haven’t
done the reading. Or craft laptop policies that make it impossible for
disabled students to receive accommodation without having their
disability made visible to an entire classroom. Or throw students
(with nowhere else to go) out of their dorms over the holidays.
Critical Digital Pedagogy:
1. centers its practice on community and collaboration;
2. must remain open to diverse, international voices, and thus
requires invention to reimagine the ways that communication
and collaboration happen across cultural and political
3. will not, cannot, be deﬁned by a single voice but must gather
together a cacophony of voices ;
4. must have use and application outside traditional institutions of
“Critical formative cultures are crucial in producing the knowledge,
values, social relations and visions that help nurture and sustain the
possibility to think critically, engage in political dissent, organize
collectively and inhabit public spaces in which alternative and
critical theories can be developed.”
~ Henry Giroux, “Thinking Dangerously: the Role of Higher
Education in Authoritarian Times”
bell hooks writes, “for me this place of radical openness is a margin
—a profound edge. Locating oneself there is difﬁcult yet necessary.
It is not a 'safe' place. One is always at risk. One needs a
community of resistance.” For hooks, the risks we take are personal,
professional, political. When she says that “radical openness is a
margin,” she suggests it is a place of uncertainty, a place of friction,
a place of critical thinking.
Radical openness isn’t a bureaucratic gesture. It demands our
schools be spaces for relationships and dialogue. Far too many tools
we’ve built for teaching are designed to make grading students
convenient — or designed to facilitate the systematic observation of
students and teachers by institutions. These are not dialogues.
(1) Front load support by hard-coding it into curricula. Design syllabi
and course materials for humans, not machines. Use language that
honors the complex humanity of students.
Building radically open spaces in education
(2) For education to be innovative, at this particular moment, we
don’t need to invest in technology. We need to invest in teachers.
Building radically open spaces in education
(3) Practice self-care and support your contingent, adjunct,
precarious, or otherwise marginalized colleagues. The work of
education is hard.
Building radically open spaces in education
(4) Start by trusting students. Ask them when and how they learn.
Ask what barriers they face. Listen. Believe the answers.
Building radically open spaces in education
“We often ignore the best resource for informed change, one that is
right in front of our noses every day—our students, for whom the
most is at stake.”
~ Martin Bickman, “Returning to Community and Praxis”